View From the Front Row, 4/10/12
On Easter Sunday, I was lucky enough to bear witness to a damn near private performance from one of my favorite groups in all of underground hip hop, Oldominion. Granted, this show was just a handful of core members from the massive Seattle-based crew, but it was still a line-up that you don't see every day (or every decade) outside of Seattle. A booked spot at the Paid Dues festival in San Bernardino brought these dudes out to Cali, and their mini-tour back in the direction of Portland landed them at Ear Peace Records in the center of Berkeley. It was kind of surreal to see these guys kill it at such a tiny spot with only a few people in attendance, but they delivered a full set worthy of their reputation and had fun regardless of the minimal turnout.
The Oldominion line-up at this show consisted of Onry Ozzborn, JFK, Destro, Syndel, Bishop I and Mr. Hill. Sleep and Rob Castro were scheduled to be part of the line-up as well, but ended up taking a detour off to LA instead, snagging a bunch of clothing tour merch along with them. They ended up being the punchline of a number of well-timed jokes from the other members of the crew at this show, which was hilarious and not done in a mean-spirited way. The turn-out to the event was small to the point where it felt disheartening, with only about three or four fans in attendance, and I include myself in that round-up. The worst part about tiny crowds like this is that they tend to make fans feel self-conscious about getting involved with the music, and I was the only one there doing call-and-response stuff when the artists prompted it. Fortunately, the lack of a hype crowd did not impact the quality of the performance.
Oldominion started off their show with a series of solo sets from a bunch of the talented rappers in the crew. Bishop I went on first to perform a couple of numbers, and really impressed me with the vicious energy of his verses. I'd never seen him live before and wasn't familiar with much of the material he played, but I definitely dug his raw voice and style. JFK stepped up front to watch him play and started mean-mugging him, and Bishop I responded by improvising his verses to playfully diss him, which worked well and had people cracking up. Syndel went on after Bishop I, and switched gears a bit with a smoother and more soulful performance that showed off her relaxed style and confident delivery. She performed songs from her "Enchantress" album along with a couple of Siren's Echo verses, and it was great to watch her do her thing since she was constantly smiling and clearly having a good time rocking the mic for a select few. Destro went on after Syndel, and had the roughest of the three solo sets since his voice was a bit shot from Paid Dues. His boom bap call-and-response hooks felt a little out of place in such a tiny crowd, but he still killed some songs from his "Ill.ustrated" album, particularly "Rest When I'm Dead" which brought the best out of Destro's cadence and rock steady flow. All of these Oldominion solo sets felt like proper sets that you'd see at a concert, with each of the rappers in question delivering at least 5 songs and giving people a full performance of their work.
Onry Ozzborn and JFK teamed up for a set as Grayskul once the solo sets were done, and they really killed it with the best performance I've seen from them as a group to date. The last time I saw Grayskul play was probably opening for Atmosphere on one of the early Rhymesayers tours, and I remember being kind of unimpressed with their set back then. They've released a wealth of quality material since then, and that was reflected in the quality of their set at Ear Peace. Onry and JFK covered some newer songs and some older Grayskul tunes, alternating between performing solo numbers from their various side projects and group songs. Out of their Grayskul material, the songs they played from the Maker-produced "Graymaker" album worked exceptionally well live, with the grimy boom bap beats showcasing the strength of their voices and flows. They also did some serious justice to a couple of older Grayskul joints, including "Prom Quiz" and "Scarecrow," which both sounded great. I haven't always been impressed with Onry Ozzborn's solo stuff live, but he seemed animated and on-point at this show, occasionally throwing awesome head-nodder joints like "The O.O" and "No Hoax" into the mix. But JFK was the star of the set and of the show in general, boasting the best live stage presence and the rowdiest personality of any member of the crew. He was killing every track he touched with his wicked voice and flow, including solo jams like the unfuckwitable "Paranoid" or the poppy Jake One-produced "High School Sweetheart." He was also great at motivating his Oldominion fam to bring their A-game, as his funny dance moves and occasional mock stare-downs brought the best out of his rap brethren's verses. Grayskul finished their set with the track "Missing," where JFK flipped the hook at the end to include "Sleep" and "Rob" in the list of missing people, crooning about how they were off at Disneyland and getting a lot of laughs from the crowd.
But Grayskul's performance was not the end of the show. Everyone from Oldominion who was present came out to play a collective group set as the final act of the night, and they kicked a variety of collaborative numbers you'd rarely get to see outside of their hometurf. Most of the songs they played were improvised reinterpretations of solo tracks from different members of the crew, which each of the rappers took turns rocking verses over. The most memorable out of these cuts was a reworking of Onry Ozzborn's "That Good" that had everyone killing it over Sapient's ill instrumental. Near the beginning of this final group performance, SF resident Karim of Oldominion/Boom Bap Project showed up at Ear Peace to watch his homies play, and many bear-hugs were exchanged mid-set as he mingled with his crew. This added more fuel to Oldominion's fire, particularly for Destro who started killing his verses super hard, as if wanting to prove to his good friend and former partner in rhyme that he was still carrying the Boom Bap torch. JFK and Bishop I were ready to engage in a comic rap battle by the time the music stopped, but it was decided by the rest of the crew that they had rocked it long enough. Great set and show from Oldominion.
The extremely low turn-out to this event was a great injustice considering the awesome talent of this collective, but the fact that they gave a complete performance to the couple of fans in attendance speaks volumes about their integrity as artists. Hopefully, future Ear Peace Records in-stores will not be as criminally slept on. Check out Onry Ozzborn and JFK rocking the Graymaker song "Crazy Talk" below: